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The Scientist and the Tyrant

Pis’ma o nauke [Letters on Science]

by Peter Leonidovich Kapitsa, edited by Pavel Rubinin
Moskovskii rabochii, 400 pp., 1 ruble

The publication in Moscow last year of 155 letters by the famous Soviet physicist Peter Kapitsa on science and the organization of science was one of the more dramatic benefits of the policy of glasnost. Most of the letters are addressed to Stalin, Molotov, Beria, Krushchev, and other Soviet officials; they cover the years between 1930 and 1980, though most were written between 1934 and 1956. These letters have been drawn from Kapitsa’s own files, and have been carefully edited with helpful annotations by Kapitsa’s longtime assistant, Pavel Rubinin. They provide a fascinating portrait of a remarkable man who was the hero of numerous legends during his lifetime.

Kapitsa was known in the West to have gone to the aid of Soviet colleagues who had been arrested, to have refused to work on the atomic bomb, and to have been put under virtual house arrest by Stalin after World War II. But he was also rumored to have been, at various times, a spy master in Cambridge, the Soviet “atom tsar,” and science adviser to Stalin and Krushchev. In the absence of documentary evidence, it has been difficult, even for those who wished to do so (and not everyone did), to distinguish fact from fiction.1 Now glasnost has made it possible to publish Kapitsa’s letters and to clear up some of the mysteries that surround his life.

Kapitsa was born in Kronstadt in 1894, into a family with strong military and intellectual traditions, and he graduated from the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute in 1918. In the following year his wife and two children died in the epidemics then sweeping Russia. In 1921 Abram Ioffe, the most prominent of Russian physicists, took him on a trip to England, and in July Kapitsa entered the Cavendish Laboratory, which was then headed by Ernest Rutherford. Although intending to stay only a few months, he remained in Cambridge for thirteen years.

After some initial experiments on the behavior of alpha particles, Kaptisa devoted himself first to the use of magnetic fields to study various problems in solid state physics, and then to low temperature physics. The boldness and originality of his work impressed Rutherford. In 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1929 he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society Mond Laboratory was built for him in the courtyard of the Cavendish Laboratory and was opened in 1933 by Stanley Baldwin.

Kapitsa was a colorful man, and liked the limelight. He could be very charming and good company. He took a genuine interest in other people and liked to draw them out. He established a very close relationship with Rutherford, whom he admired immeasurably; Rutherford in turn regarded him with great affection and special favor. Although Kapitsa exuded enormous self-confidence, it is clear that Rutherford’s approval was extremely important to him and helped to calm his anxieties about his abilities.

Kapitsa returned to Russia several times during his Cambridge years. Soviet colleagues frequently urged him to come back permanently, and in 1931 Stalin sent him a message promising him the most favorable conditions for his work if he returned. But Kapitsa remained in Cambridge. He had married again, happily, and had two sons. There is no evidence at all that he was a talent scout for the Soviet intelligence services. His main interest was science; he was pleased with his success and believed that Cambridge was the best place to do physics.

In September 1934, when Kapitsa was in the Soviet Union visiting his mother and giving lectures, he was told by the Soviet authorities that he would not be allowed to return to England. In his expansive way he had created the impression that he could, if given a chance, transform the electrical engineering industry, and the Soviet government may have thought that he was essential to the economy. But vindictiveness may also have been a powerful motive for the Soviet decision. The physicist George Gamow had recently decided not to return to the Soviet Union from a trip abroad, and Stalin may have held Kapitsa in retaliation. Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s very few Soviet scientists had the opportunity to travel to other countries.

Kapitsa took the prohibition on his return to England very badly. He referred to Cambridge in a letter to Rutherford as “paradise lost.” He thought for a while of abandoning his earlier research and working on biophysics with Ivan Pavlov, the great Russian physiologist. But in December 1934 he was named director of the newly created Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. He insisted that his laboratory in Cambridge be brought to Moscow, and this was eventually done.2

Kapitsa was intensely frustrated by his dealings with government officials and by the problems he faced in organizing the new institute and overseeing its construction. In April 1936 he wrote to V.I. Mezhlauk, the deputy premier responsible for science, to complain that he was having to occupy himself with things other than research:

Here is a picture for you of what is going on. Imagine that you saw your neighbor with a violin. You found the opportunity to take it away from him. And what do you do instead of playing on it? For two years you use it to hammer nails into a stone wall.

His frame of mind was not improved by the cool reception his fellow scientists gave him. Some of them may have resented his staying abroad for so long. Others were afraid to have contact with him. Cut off from Rutherford’s support and the European physics community, he felt isolated, and Rutherford’s death in 1937 deprived him of the solace of correspondence with his mentor.

By the end of 1936, however, Kapitsa’s equipment and apparatus had arrived from England and his new institute had begun to function; he could now return to his research and his morale improved. He was dismayed nonetheless by the state of Soviet science, and by the lack of a real scientific community in Moscow. Scientists were burdened by too much teaching, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and immobilized by the fear that they might be branded as political deviationists if they said anything unexpected. In letters and reports to Soviet leaders, including Stalin, he complained that the State did not treat scientists with enough respect. His letters were not always welcomed by their recipients. When he wrote to Molotov, who was then the premier, to protest about an attack in Pravda on the mathematician Nikolai Luzin, the letter was returned to him with the following inscription: “Return to Citizen Kapitsa as not needed. V. Molotov.”

In April 1938 the great terror, which had reached epidemic proportions in 1937, struck close to home. The physicist Lev Landau, whom Kapitsa had brought into his institute, was arrested. On the same day Kapitsa wrote to Stalin that Landau, though only twenty-nine years old, was one of the two leading theoretical physicists in the country, and that his loss would be a serious blow to the institute, and to Soviet and world science. “Of course,” he wrote,

learning and talent, no matter how great they may be, do not give a person the right to break the laws of his country, and if Landau is guilty he ought to answer for it. But I very much beg you, in view of his exceptional talent, to give the appropriate instructions so that his case will be treated very carefully. Also, it seems to me that Landau’s character, which is, to put it plainly, nasty, ought to be taken into account. He is a bully and a tease, likes to look for mistakes by others and, when he finds them, especially if they are made by important old men like the members of our Academy, begins to tease in a disrespectful manner. He has made many enemies in this way‌. But for all the faults in his character, it is very difficult for me to believe that Landau was capable of anything dishonest‌. No one but another scientist can write to you about this, and that is why I am writing to you.

This letter was an act of considerable courage. Everyone was vulnerable to repression, but Kapitsa’s background was especially suspicious by the standards of Stalinist politics. A lesser man would have kept quiet for fear of drawing Stalin’s anger upon himself.

This letter shows how clever Kapitsa was in his approach to Stalin. Even when he had a serious complaint or request to make, he tried to establish some common ground with the person he was addressing, and to draw that person to his own position. In this case he based his argument on concern, which Stalin might be expected to share, about the harm that Landau’s arrest would do to Soviet science, while his comments about Landau’s character offered an explanation for any denunciations that might have been made of him.

Stalin did not heed Kapitsa’s letter, however, and Landau was still in prison a year later. In April 1939 Kapitsa wrote to Molotov to ask that the case be speeded up and that Landau be allowed to do scientific work in prison. He needed Landau, he said, to explain a number of interesting phenomena he had discovered while studying the properties of liquid helium. At the end of April 1939 Kapitsa was summoned to the NKVD where he was asked to write a letter to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, vouching for Landau’s behavior, and Landau was accordingly released. Kapitsa’s work on liquid helium and Landau’s theoretical explanation of Kapitsa’s discoveries led to Nobel prizes for Landau in 1962 and for Kapitsa in 1978.

Kapitsa’s other main project in the late 1930s was the development of a new and cheaper method for producing oxygen on an industrial scale. He devoted most of the war years to this, and from 1943 headed a special government agency with responsibility for the oxygen industry. Many of his letters from this period are addressed to government officials to enlist their aid in overcoming the difficulties he faced in organizing a new oxygen production plant.

Kapitsa was well rewarded for his work in science and technology. He was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences in 1939, received Stalin prizes in 1941 and 1943 and the Order of Lenin in 1943 and 1944, and in May 1945 was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honor. He was thus in good standing with the regime when he was drawn into the atomic project in August 1945.

Kapitsa had been consulted in 1942, along with other scientists, about the desirability of a Soviet atomic project, but had taken no part in the small effort that Stalin had initiated then. After Hiroshima, however, when Stalin decided to launch a crash program, Kapitsa became a member of a special committee chaired by Beria who had been given overall charge of the project.

  1. 1

    The best account of Kapitsa’s life and work in English is the memoir by David Shoenberg, “Piotr Leonidovich Kapitza,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 31 (1985), pp. 327–374. Shoenberg has also written an article dispelling some of the more egregious inventions about Kapitsa, “Kapitsa: Fact and Fiction,” in Intelligence and National Security, Vol. III, No. 4 (October 1988), pp. 49–67.

  2. 2

    This episode is discussed with reference to Kapitsa’s letters to Rutherford and to his wife in Lawrence Badash, Kapitza, Rutherford, and the Kremlin (Yale University Press, 1985).

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